The problem with synonyms

What to make of synonyms?

Simone emailed me this question last week.

Just to be sure: a synonym is a word that means (roughly) the same as another word.

Map is a synonym for plan.

People often use synonyms to introduce stylistic variation in their text. They fear that otherwise, the text will be repetitive and boring.

For example:

Luka Jovic no longer plays for Real Madrid. The Vikings let the striker leave on a free transfer. Previously, the Champions League winner already leased Jovic to Frankfurt for six months. 

As a football fan, obviously you’ll see right away that Real Madrid is the same as ‘the Vikings’ and ‘the Champions League winner’.

Piece of cake.

But as the topics get more complex, it gets more difficult to recognize synonyms.

For example:

Alpha-synuclein plays an important role in Parkinson’s disease. When molecular protection mechanisms fail, proteins in the brain clump together. It’s still unclear how these polypeptides interact with αsyn multimers and which multimers are involved in the formation of the Lewy bodies.

Recognizing polypeptides as synonym for proteins and αsyn as a synonym for alpha-synuclein demands concentration. And without prior knowledge, it’s impossible to figure out that a Lewy body is a clump of alpha-synuclein proteins.

When it comes to your topic, people probably won’t always recognize synonyms either. And then they’ll lose the thread.

Therefore: be careful with synonyms.